First Lady Michelle Obama on Raising Healthy Kids

by Ana Connery

First Lady Michelle Obama on Raising Healthy Kids

Parenting‘s Editorial Director sits down with the First Lady Michelle Obama for a once-in-a-lifetime interview. Plus, watch the First Lady answer questions from kids about healthy eating!

What if you scored an invitation to the White House? Not to tour the halls and ooh and aah at the paintings, but to sit down with the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, smart woman to smart woman? What would you ask? How would you feel? What would you wear? Take the ride with Parenting Editorial Director Ana Connery as she does just that in the name of modern moms everywhere.

First Lady Michelle Obama appeared on Parenting's August 2012 cover.

April 24, 2012

Today I typed a rather unusual Facebook post: “Prepping for my big interview with the FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES. What to wear? What to ask? So excited!”

Within seconds, I scored my first “like,” then the comments started to roll in from friends and colleagues. They suggested questions (“What’s a mother’s greatest challenge?”), made requests (“Post pics!”), and shared the kind of truncated messages typical of the social media era (“!!!”). I can’t lie; I’m nervous. I’ve done a few celebrity interviews, but this has me trembling like an empty Starbucks cup on a subway platform.

Mrs. Obama is gracing Parenting‘s first-ever Health and Fitness Issue in honor of her work with Let’s Move, the initiative she launched to combat childhood obesity. It’s a cause that’s dear to my heart. I’m Latina of Cuban descent, and obesity runs in my family. Nearly 40 percent of Hispanic kids are overweight or obese. But at the end of the day, I’m a mom, and what do moms want for their kids more than a long, happy, and, most important, healthy life?

With a mixture of nerves and exhaustion, I finish packing the zillion outfits I ordered online and stuff a whopping seven pairs of shoes into my suitcase because you just never know.

April 25, 2012

On a flight bound for Washington, DC, my list of questions for the First Lady gets updated more often than the national debt sign in Times Square. I can’t ignore the fear that I will somehow blow this. I will trip on my way toward her; my bra will show; my shoes will look fab but be so uncomfortable that I’ll walk with a limp. This woman is a big deal (she’s the first African American First Lady, after all), but she’s also extremely likable and down-to-earth. I dare you to name one other First Lady who would have even considered hula-hooping or double-Dutching across the White House lawn.

It’s no surprise her approval rating is a staggering 69 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Her relatability may have something to do with the fact that she’s raising young girls, Sasha, 11, and Malia, 14, and that she brought her own mom, Marian Robinson, to Washington to help her raise them. I grew up in a crowded home filled with four generations of Cuban-Americans. I shared a room with my great-grandmother, my grandfather was the weeknight cook, and my grandmother took the reins when it came to getting my brother and me to do our homework. When news broke that the First Grandma was also moving to DC, I totally got it, and apparently, so did a lot of other people.

April 26, 12:35 p.m.

OMG, I’m walking into the White House! Suddenly, I get extremely emotional thinking about my mom, Maria. She came to this country when she was 18 with nothing, literally, but the clothes on her back. Luckily, my grandmother had requested she don her best dress and shoes, so she looked good—shiny-patent-leather-shoes good. My hardworking, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps family came to America so that someday, one of their kids, or their kids’ kids, could have a chance like this. My eyes are watery. (Pull yourself together! No smudging the makeup!)

We enter through a lower level into a foyer with black-and-white checkerboard marble floors. Bo, the First Family’s Portuguese water dog, comes bouncing down the hall, barking. It’s lunchtime and the place is busy, with folks bustling back and forth, carrying sandwiches on cardboard trays. We’re ushered into the Bookseller’s Room, which has a wall of glass that leads out to the garden, where beautiful blooms flank stone pathways that lead to a gazebo. It’s a gloomy day, so the First Lady’s staff has requested we move our outdoor shoot here. The crew begins to set up an indoor garden party for Mrs. O and a group of kids recruited from a nearby elementary school. A rotating cast of Secret Service agents keeps a watchful eye. They ask the children repeatedly not to touch the paintings. Or the furniture. Or the walls filled with historic images of past presidents…

April 26, 2:15 p.m.

We were told the First Lady tends to run early, and that’s the case today. Just as she’s about to enter the room, though, 5-year-old Pedro, already meticulously placed into the garden-party scheme, announces he has to go potty. The jumpy way he delivers the news makes it clear: This. Cannot. Wait. The First Lady’s entourage holds her back a few minutes.

Once Pedro returns, she enters the room and our crop of kindergartners run toward her. “Hey, everybody, who’s ready to have some fun?” she asks. She bends down, opens her arms wide, and greets the kids one by one. She then turns to the photo crew and does the same. Hula-hoops, balls, and ribbon wands make the rounds as Mrs. Obama steps into a role she seems born to play: everyone’s favorite playmate. She’s teasing the kids, the photographer (“Make me look good!”), even poking fun at herself as she makes funny faces for the kids, trying to get them to laugh along with her.

April 26, 3:02 p.m.

The First Lady finally sits down for an interview in the old family dining room on the second floor of the White House. She’s eager to discuss the child-obesity epidemic and Let’s Move. I bring up my own childhood: It was many wonderful things, but healthy was not one of them. When asked about her own upbringing, she tells me about her mom’s kitchen prowess. “She cooked almost every night, and she sort of followed the traditional plan of having a meat, a starch, and a vegetable,” says Mrs. Obama. “We couldn’t afford to go out, so we had fast food maybe once a week. We used to get pizza on report-card day as a reward, and that was like once a quarter! There were things that I don’t think they were intentionally doing [like sitting around the dinner table], but looking back, it’s where we’re trying to get parents and families today.”

Ah, yes, the “family table” thing. Research shows that kids are smarter, more secure, do better in school, and a host of other things if they sit down at the dinner table on a regular basis. This is a challenge for any modern family, especially single moms like myself. We’re the same folks who hesitate to let our kids play outside for fear of predators, speeding cars, killer mosquitoes…

“A lot of people are afraid to let their kids run around outside today,” I say.

“Absolutely,” she replies. “Things have changed. We also didn’t have 24-hour kids’ TV. If you remember, we had seven channels and a limited amount that was even interesting to kids, like on Saturday morning.”

My parents never monitored my TV viewing. They were happy my brother and I were quiet. Today my relationship with my son, Javier’s, viewing habits is entirely more complicated. When I let him watch more than an hour or so, a heavy weight settles onto my shoulders. It goes by the name Guilt. Perhaps she’s heard of it?

For a moment I wonder if she has similar regrets. With that, I turn to the First Lady and ask, “What’s the number one thing you wish parents did more of today?”

“I think it’s the simple things that hold true regardless of income or location: eliminating sugary drinks, cooking a little bit more,” she says. “It’s hard to do. I struggled with it as a working mom myself. But thinking about it once or twice a week even, sitting around a table, getting to know our kids more, is a good thing.”

How do she and the President make time for this? Sure, there are at least two White House chefs that I know of, but she is married to the leader of the free world. They’re, like, pretty busy. How involved is President Obama—really? “You know, we go to all the important school functions,” she says matter-of-factly. “At least one of us is there. It’s important to get to know their friends and teachers and to understand what they’re going through on a daily basis.”

Note to self: You may be a single mother, but if the President can do this stuff, what the heck are you stressing about? As if that’s not enough to humble me: It turns out the President has even found time to help coach Sasha’s basketball team. “We set the expectation that sports are as important as homework and friends. It’s important to learn how to compete, to develop a skill…”

“And to learn how to lose,” I chime in.

“Exactly. And how to work as a team. I want them to learn how to sweat, how to win gracefully and lose with dignity. I want them to learn what it feels like to get better at something that you didn’t think you were good at.”

For a second it sounds like she’s talking about motherhood. And maybe she is, in her own First Lady sort of way. Surely her life can’t be that easy. If it were, why would she have brought the First Grandma, Marian Robinson, to Washington with her to help with the girls? I soon learn Mrs. Robinson’s place in this family was firmly cemented long before the White House dream even took shape. “We led busy lives [in Chicago] with two careers and travel, and family was critical to our survival. People pitched in to help,” she says.

It turns out the First Family (and mine) may have been ahead of the times. The number of Americans living in a multigenerational household has ballooned to 49 million, the highest number since 1940. It’s likely that more families connected to the Obamas than they even realize, simply for bringing Grams to DC. “My mom already helped with pick-ups [from school] and everything. I prayed that she would be open to this move if it happened, and so did Barack, for that matter.”

Multigenerational living certainly has its advantages. Today Mrs. Robinson is there to greet the girls when they come home from school; she even takes them to birthday parties. The best part of having her so involved? “Consistent values,” Mrs. Obama says. “She’s got the grandma thing where they get away with a lot more than we did, but ultimately she cares about their development into good people as much as I do.” The bonus: “The downloads I get from her [about how the girls are doing] are real.”

April 26, 3:22 p.m.

The First Lady’s press secretary interrupts: Our time is almost up. I hop to the question I’m most curious to have her answer.

What, I ask Mrs. Obama, is the biggest challenge of being a parent today? Her response: teaching the value and benefit of service in a world that seems increasingly dehumanized. “I tell my kids that you have to practice who you want to be every day,” replies the First Lady. “You won’t wake up in twenty years and become a compassionate person if you’re not practicing that along the way.”

This isn’t a new concept for the Obamas; the President ran on a record of community service. At one point during his campaign, he even suggested that college students spend time doing some form of community service.

At home, “we’ve done everything from work at a soup kitchen to box up packages for military families,” says the First Lady. But beyond those seemingly presidential duties, the Obamas have their own family traditions. “Every Thanksgiving, my family comes over for dinner, and we do a day of service somewhere. Last year my brother, who’s a basketball coach, brought his team, so we had six-foot-nine basketball players passing out food to people in the community, and you know, for all the young people in our family, they found that was the best part of the visit. It’s not just coming to the White House, it’s serving and giving back.”

With two young girls with staffs at their beck and call, how do the President and the First lady keep everyone so…normal? “Barack and I always tell our girls that you can be smart, you can be beautiful, but if you don’t know how to treat people, if you don’t walk into a room and say hello, if you don’t say thank you, if you’re not looking out for the girl who’s sitting alone by herself, then who are you?”

April 26, 3:30 pm

Our time is up, so I do what any modern woman would if given the chance: I ask her to sign my shoe. Under my seat is a pair of red, white, and blue pumps I’ve had forever that were just so darn perfect for a visit to the White House, I had to bring them along with me, even if they weren’t on my feet. “Have you signed a shoe before?” asks a White House staff photographer standing nearby. “You know what? I think I may have,” she says.

That’s OK. Coming in second for this First Lady is just fine by me.